Poetic License

I recently finished reading Colin Barrett’s Young Skins, and it’s really, really good. And I’m not just saying that because he’s Irish and my Dad’s from Dublin. There are a lot of people calling him “a great new voice” (by the way, maybe we should stop bestowing the whole “a great new voice” compliment so often. A quarter of my books have that line tagged somewhere on the cover).

Beyond the array of alcoholic, sexually downtrodden and existentially confused narrators, it’s Barrett’s semantic prowess and lyrical sensibility that make Young Skins excellent. Here’s an example:

“They were beyond the farmsteads now, into reefs of bogland infested with gorse bushes. Bony, hard-thorned and truculently thriving, the gorse bushes’ yellow blossoms were vivid against the grained black sheen of the sump waters, the seamed bog fields.”

See how Barrett hits the hard “f” sound of “reefs” and “infested,” and then repeats the hard “b” of “bushes” and “bony”? Also, I love how he uses a comma instead of “and” to connect “sump waters” with “the seamed bog fields,” because it preserves the sentence’s fast-paced rhythm.

Here’s the first-line to his story “Diamonds”:

“I left the city with my connections scorched and my prospects blown, looking only for somewhere to batten down for the winter to come.”

It’s a great hook, right?

As I read through Young Skins, I constantly thought to myself that Barrett must have trained as a poet. His writing showed a superb sense of rhythm. I looked him up on the interwebs, but Young Skins is his first book, so there isn’t a lot of information on him. I will reward knowledge on Barrett’s poetic undertakings with extraordinary gratitude and a blog post dedicated to a topic of the finder’s choosing.

I started thinking about poets who write fiction and “fictors” (“fictioners?”) who write poetry. I remembered that James Joyce published some poetry, but I think the consensus is that the human race is better off concentrating on his works of fiction.

Roberto Bolaño wrote poetry, and a poet’s understanding of imagery shines through his work. Here’s a line from The Savage Detectives: “You must cultivate a garden in the shadow of their grudges and resentments.” The concrete concepts of “garden” and “shadow” are lifted to a higher register by “grudges and resentments” to form a gorgeous metaphor—beautiful growth in the midst of petty artistic squabbling.

I’m sure there are a ton of other examples of poets kicking ass in fiction, and I would love to hear some names because they are probably people I want to read. I’m currently in a poetry workshop with Dr. Charlotte Pence, and I’ve come to the conclusion that all fictioners should take a stab at poetry. There is something about rhyme, rhythm and image that bypasses language’s semantic properties, somehow taking the reader directly to the heart of the matter. It’s like poetry has access to a soul-destined superhighway unavailable to “prosers.”

Most of all, I have a whole new appreciation for writers who take the time to write poetic prose. Thank you.

–Sean Towey

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